Paris was the Place
by Susan Conley
With her new novel, Paris Was the Place (Knopf, 2013), Susan Conley offers a beautiful meditation on how much it matters to belong: to a family, to a country, to any one place, and how this belonging can mean the difference in our survival. Novelist Richard Russo calls Paris Was the Place, “by turns achingly beautiful and brutally unjust, as vividly rendered as its characters, whose joys and struggles we embrace as our own.”
When Willie Pears begins teaching at a center for immigrant girls in Paris all hoping for French asylum, the lines between teaching and mothering quickly begin to blur. Willie has fled to Paris to create a new family, and she soon falls for Macon, a passionate French lawyer. Gita, a young girl at the detention center, becomes determined to escape her circumstances, no matter the cost. And just as Willie is faced with a decision that could have dire consequences for Macon and the future of the center, her brother is taken with a serious, as-yet-unnamed illness. The writer Ayelet Waldman calls Paris Was the Place “a gorgeous love story and a wise, intimate journal of dislocation that examines how far we’ll go for the people we love most.” Named on the Indie Next List for August 2013 and on the Slate Summer Reading List, this is a story that reaffirms the ties that bind us to one another.
Release date: August 7, 2013
Susan Conley is a writer and teacher. Her memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune (Knopf 2011), chronicles her family’s experiences in modern China as well as her journey through breast cancer. The Oprah Magazine listed it as a Top Ten Pick, Slate Magazine chose it as "Book of the Week," and The Washington Post called it "a beautiful book about China and cancer and how to be an authentic, courageous human being." Excerpts from the memoir have been published in The New York Times Magazine and The Daily Beast.
Susan’s writing has also appeared in The Paris Review, The Harvard Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Gettysburg Review, The North American Review, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. A native of Maine, she earned her B.A. from Middlebury College and her M.F.A. in creative writing from San Diego State University. After teaching poetry and literature at Emerson College in Boston, Susan returned to Portland, where she cofounded and served as executive director of The Telling Room, a nonprofit creative writing center. She currently teaches at The Telling Room and at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast MFA Program.
It is my habit to not read the cover excerpt of novels; I prefer to just dig in. I was surprised by the setting of Paris Was the Place; surprised in a good way and delighted to read a novel dealing with an issue close to my heart. The plight of immigrants, especially illegal ones first came to my attention while living in London. Perhaps because I was removed from the politics of the United States I was more able to relate to the people themselves. In any case, I was horrified to learn that so many men, women and children were deported to return to war torn and poverty stricken homelands and many faced certain death or imprisonment on their arrival. It seemed so unjust and innately uncivilized to return these people, most of whom were hard working and upstanding members of their communities, deserved such extreme punishment because they had broken the law in an effort to make a better life for themselves and their families. To me they were survivors not criminals, despite the fact they had knowingly and willing broken the law. As my Grandmother used to tell me, when remembering her youth during the Great Depression, that sometimes laws are broken for a higher good than that which they mean to protect.
Paris was The Place is set in the 1980s and follows a group of young girls awaiting trial, which will either grant them asylum or see them deported to their native county. Despite the desperate nature of these young women the author still provides the reader with lush descriptions of Paris which magically transport one to the wondrous City of Lights.
Another of the novel’s characters is Willie, a California woman who comes to Paris for artistic inspiration, but finds herself working at the immigrant center to assist the young women in the telling of their stories so that they might receive asylum. Willie herself is a complex multi-layered character rich with layers of personal tragedy. Willie’s own life story is what fuels her empathy and invested interest in helping the girls at the immigration center. Willie’s beloved brother, Luke, is also living in Paris and whose health has been failing for some time when tragedy strikes again. Like so many in the 1980s Luke discovers that he has AIDS and very quickly succumbs to the disease which was still an enigma to medical professionals who could do little, if anything, for those afflicted. I myself lost a dear friend in 1987 to AIDS and will never forget how rapidly my vivacious friend with his infectious smile wasted away before my eyes.
One might imagine that since Paris was the Place touched on issues so dear to my heart that I would be critical, but in truth all of the characters were so human, so well crafted and the descriptions of their struggles and triumphs so human that I was truly moved by such a rich well crafted novel. A note of criticism never passed through my mind.
I would highly recommend Paris was the Place as a well crafted story of humanity, flawed and unjust but full of beauty, promise and hope.
I received this novel from France Book Tours for a fair and honest review.